Star Trek: William Shatner – an appreciation

A salute to Captain James T Kirk, as we celebrate The Shat himself, Mr William Shatner...

William Shatner as James T Kirk

William Shatner. The Shat. The Hamasaurus. Has there ever been another popular figure quite like him? One both so highly regarded and reviled? We’re talking about an actor who during his career has played not one but three highly iconic character roles, has ‘authored’ novels that have topped the New York Times best-seller list and who released a very credible pop record (2004’s Has Been) at a time of life when most men are getting their tenth annual prostate exam. Bill Shatner is a true renaissance man – a sort of C-list Da Vinci – and yet… ┬áhe’s also an object of near relentless ridicule.

Like Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, his mannered performance is a gift to mimics. His first ill-advised foray into music begat a version of Elton John’s Rocket Man that set a benchmark for kitsch for decades after. Worse, according to the biographies of Jimmy Doohan, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, he had an ego the size of a Klingon moon. Documentary evidence tends to support their hypothesis. Some of those interviews on the special edition Star Trek movie DVDs are painful to watch. I’m particularly fond of the press conference for Star Trek V where he forgets Walter Koenig’s name, introducing him as “and the guy who played Chekov”…

But, then again, none of the supporting cast has had anything like the Kirk actor’s post Star Trek career – with the majority of alumni doomed to the convention circuit and cameo performances in fan films. It could have been so different. Shatner could have ended up there too.

There was a clear turning point for the cracked actor in the early 70s, a moment of epiphany. He wrote about the wilderness years between Trek‘s last TV episode Turnabout Intruder and The Motion Picture in ‘Star Trek Movie Memories’. Shatner found himself taking bit parts on TV while living in a camper van with his dog. His wife left him, he was sacked from a game show stint and he scraped by doing repertory theatre and margarine commercials. After several years of scraps, it was the return of Star Trek that saved his ass. In short, Kirk rescued Shatner.

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The star of Star Trek The Motion Picture was – in the words of his own late 60s attempt at pop stardom – a transformed man. It’s written on the screen. Shatner was always Captain James Tiberius Kirk – absolutely, unequivocally and comfortably – but in the movies he showcases a mature and less mannered version of the extreme acting style we’d grown familiar with during Star Trek‘s 79 TV episodes.

And let’s take a moment to consider that style. For indie aficionados, The Pixies, a band who explored quiet textures in verses only to explode on the first bombastic chord of every chorus, are a suitable comparison.

That’s how Shatner acts.

He’s charmingly natural, subtle and studied in quieter moments. Then, Khan appears on the viewscreen or some Klingon bastard kills his son and, suddenly, he’s The Shat – all twisted facial angles and staccato delivery, spitting red as he protests the dying of the light.

Even though Star Trek was back and Shatner’s pension fund was assured, the memories of those lean years must have stayed fresh. How else could you explain his decision to sign on the line for two seasons of T.J. Hooker? How else do you justify the Priceline ads and Hollywood Squares? Not only was this second-wave Shatner hungry, as his voracious diversification into music, novels and even webcasting in latter years demonstrates, he was changed in other ways. The new Shatner could laugh at himself, could reflect the ridicule back at his detractors by getting in there first. The public debut of that new attitude was his turn in Airplane II, where his appearance as a deluded moonbase commander Buck Murdock showed considerable comic chops. And that nickname? The “Hamasaurus”? That’s a Shatner coinage. He knows his limitations. He also knows you’ll forgive him for them – if he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Shatner was, if accounts are to be believed, a joker throughout TOS – stealing the bicycle Leonard Nimoy used to get around the studio lot and putting it in a trailer with a couple of dobermans on one occasion. But this willingness to make himself the butt of the joke was newly minted – and serves him well to this day.

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Boston Legal‘s Denny Crane is Shatner’s final iconic creation. Kirk may be his best known character, T.J. Hooker the most ridiculed – but in Denny Crane you get the sense that what you see on screen is pretty much what you get. Both shrewd and silly in equal measure, people laugh at Crane behind his back, but they never get one over on him. He’s always a step ahead. And though the show has now gone the way of all shows – to cancellation and syndication – we doubt we’ve heard the last of The Shat.